Tom Woods: topped and tailed

A couple of weeks ago Intellectual Vision published on YouTube a talk made by Tom Woods at the Mises Institute.

Tom Woods is not only a prolific author and speaker, but the star of the Tom Woods Show, a regular podcast which presents itself with the sort of cheerful razzamatazz normally associated with radio programmes, even including advertising. And why not indeed!

Here he presents himself rather more soberly …

More and more organisations, posting speeches on line, ‘clean up’ videos by topping-and-tailing them. It’s understandable: the market is bound to want these things neatly packaged. For my niche purpose though, I want to see the opening and closing – warts and all. Just as when flying an aeroplane the trickiest part is the takeoff and landing, the biggest test of a speaker is in the opening and closing.  Here, sadly for me, we see neither.

Never mind: whatever preamble we’ve lost, he kicks off in this video with a very clear laying out of his stall: he intends to address the oppression that underlies the Political Correctness narrative.

Interestingly for me I still clearly remember the moment, around a quarter of a century ago, when I first heard the expression ‘politically correct’. My instant, spontaneous, horrified reaction was, “That can mean only totalitarian dictatorship.” I went on to reason that politics was about opinion, which by definition is neither right nor wrong – simply disputed. Therefore the very term was a contradiction, and a revolting one at that. My little rant being over, I turned back to the contributor on the radio programme I was presenting at the time.

I find myself puzzled by Woods’ first two minutes as, at the Mises Institute, everyone in his audience already knows and agrees with what he is saying. Is he there merely to massage their views, or is there more and meatier to come?

He does indeed move into a meatier area, and one with which I happen to be familiar – namely economic disparity in different social and ethnic groups. The PC (I detest the term so much that I shall not write it out again) view is that all inequalities are the result of oppression. In debunking this, Woods proceeds to quote data, case histories and examples that I have read in books by the great Thomas Sowell, and therefore I assume that Woods has read them also. (Actually I would assume that anyway, because not to have done so would have been negligent for someone like Woods.)

At 7:40 Woods confirms my assumption by specifically naming Thomas Sowell.

Despite all this meaty data, I find the speech a disappointment. Perhaps because it told me nothing I didn’t happen already to know, but rather I feel my problem is what I’ve long called the ‘semi-memo issue’. Very many decades ago I wrote a memo to my then boss, neatly identifying a string of mistakes that I felt our organisation was making. I received a dry, though courteous reply, suggesting I had omitted the important half of my memo – the bit that suggested ways to remedy those mistakes. He was far too polished to put it this way, but his unmistakable message was that any half-wit can spot problems. What required ability was the finding of ways to solve them.

Woods begins his speech by complaining that PC permits no argument, substituting debate with cretinous name-calling at best and brutal violence at worst. Quite so. Today this insidious, malevolent, misanthropic malaise has infected in varying degrees the establishment, the civil service, academia, the media, and so on. If what I read of last week’s General Synod is to be believed we may even add the church to that sorry list. One could describe it as metastatic. It is as if Antonio Gramsci had personally orchestrated the campaign.

Woods’ missing half should surely concern itself with at least some semblance of a suggestion as to what can be done about it. Or perhaps that was lost in the topping and tailing of the video.



Deirdre McCloskey: a lamb in wolf’s clothing

In my previous post I ended by saying that I needed to find someone expert enough to take Thomas Picketty properly to task.

In November 2014 the Rogge Lecture at Wabash College was delivered by Deirdre McCloskey. This was just a few months after the English language edition of Thomas Picketty’s book was published, and she tackled it head on. Please note that last pronoun. She tackled it more than she tackled him. Yes she disagreed with him and destroyed much of his case, but her approach to him was always courteous and professional.

This is worth noting, because debates across this particular philosophical line are so often absurdly acrimonious. Burnt into my memory is a picture I saw on line a few years ago of a Tea Party gathering where a young man was wearing a placard bearing just the words, “Whatever I say you will call me racist.” Though it is possible that some advocates of low tax and small government could be racist, to equate them is nonsense; but smear machines always swing into action on these occasions. That placard was no doubt shown to be justified.

McCloskey, taking the side that is so often idly portrayed as unfeeling, is wearing little discernible makeup, her hair is in a fairly severe style (she sometimes wears it down) and her trademark gravelly voice completes the image of one who is not planning to take prisoners. No one could accuse her of superficially trying to soften her case, even though the gentle gleam of her smile creeps out occasionally.

(In fact her case does not need softening, because it very quickly emerges that she is wholly concerned with helping those in poverty.)

No one could accuse her of giving a damn about anything except what she is saying, and that’s one of the things I like about her. It is the mindset I drill into my trainees: if you are concerned solely with your message so will your audience be. Do you suppose that her audience gives a damn, for instance, when at 5:54 she scratches at a mark on her skirt? It’s only people like me who notice that sort of thing, and I notice only because it indicates the right mindset. It is relevant that she is a professor not just of economics but a great many other things including communication.

McCloskey knows the anti-inequality arguments very well, because she used to be a Marxist (her life has often changed direction); so no one is better equipped to knock the arguments down. It would be impertinent of me to try to précis this speech, particularly as you can watch it for yourself and I hope you will, but for my part …


… is no more than an argument in favour of saving.

While dismantling Picketty’s arguments she points out that in his anti-capitalist rhetoric he omits mention of human capital, whence come ideas and innovation – the real drivers of progress. When researching her for this posting I watched another of her speeches which focussed even more strongly on this point, and I would have covered that one today had we not been already locked in to Picketty.

One day I will write a post on that other one, because in the first couple of minutes she said something that made me want to hug her. Like in this speech she was shooting from the hip, and in her opening she brought up the subject of her stutter.  She said that if she were to read the speech her stutter would be considerably worse. My regular readers will know why I smiled in agreement.

In every respect she is my type of speaker.

Thomas Picketty didn’t play the piano

Early in 2014 French economist Thomas Picketty published a book on economics, entitled CAPITAL in the Twenty-First Century. The book was a sensation. It rocketed to the higher reaches of the Best-Seller lists and stayed there a long time, assembling all sorts of awards. I have to confess to not having a copy of my own, although I have read several reviews of it …

… actually, because I have read several reviews of it.

Late in 2014 Picketty delivered a TED Talk.

How well I remember, all those years ago at school, our French teacher was exasperated at our attempts to wrap our Anglo-Saxon tongues around French vowel sounds. He would thunder at us that it was thoroughly ill-mannered to attempt to speak a language without applying at least as much effort to pronouncing it properly, so the better we could converse the worse the impression bad pronunciation would give. I remember his words every time I hear French people speaking English. The Hollywood actor, Maurice Chevalier, regarded his French accent as not just his professional trademark but part of his charm to such a degree that I believe while living in California he used to visit a dialogue coach to preserve it.

With my rhetor hat on I couldn’t care less about accents unless they impede intelligibility. Picketty’s accent impedes his intelligibility. So does the speed he speaks. Speaking subjectively,  I have to say that so does his subject matter.

r>g where r is the rate of return on capital and g is the growth rate of the economy.

If you are still awake I regret to inform you that this entire speech (and, for all I know, his book) is devoted to inequality of wealth, inequality of income and what can be done about it. At no point in the speech, though he may have slipped something in while I was dozing or admiring the piano behind him, did I notice him even bother to address why inequality matters.

I know that many people do get exercised that there is wealth inequality, though I don’t share their concern. I have met a few people with huge amounts of money, and they never seem to be particularly happy. I have also met many highly cheerful souls with very little. We are all much richer than our ancestors. And anyway, wealth isn’t just things.

There is only one cast-iron guaranteed way of ensuring that everyone has the same, and that is if everyone has nothing. As soon as any wealth is created, some will have more than others. The greater the overall wealth, the greater the inequality. Show me an unequal free society and I’ll show you a rich one. The richer a free society the richer the poorest in it, and that’s all that matters. How much more proportionately rich the richest have become in the process is irrelevant. Please don’t bleat to me about ‘trickle-down economics’: it doesn’t exist. Free market transactions enrich all their participants. Zero-sum transactions, where one man’s gain is another man’s loss, occur almost exclusively with theft and its derivatives.

Picketty seems to assume that inequality is self-evidently bad, because at 14:45 he begins to address “what can be done about it”; and all his remedies are varieties of institutionalized theft. At 15:10 he explicitly lists “expropriation” which he dismisses only because it is “inefficient”. It doesn’t seem to concern him, or even occur to him, that it is theft.

Proper economists are probably rolling their eyes while reading my clumsy attempts to make a case on the basis of my (at best) sketchy understanding of the science, so I think I had better shut up and go looking for a speech from an expert who can take Picketty properly to task. Watch this space.

Picketty must have made a lot of money from his book. Good luck to him. I wish him well, because I don’t resent another man’s success. I would wish him better if he had played that piano, because it couldn’t fail to have been more entertaining.